Backpack the Opal Creek Wilderness

Rate this Adventure 11.5 miles 900 ft gain  - Out-and-Back Trail

Added by Jenna Mulligan

Just a short distance from Portland, the Opal Creek Trail offers a getaway enhanced by dense fern forests, a shallow creek collecting in glassy pools, and even an opportunity for cliff jumping.

On Saturday, I slid into the backseat alongside weekend belongings crammed in the car trunk. Backpacks with patches and streaks of dust. Bags of food that could be cooked over the flames of a fire.

We drove south on the 5, leaving Portland and crossing through Salem, as Lake Street Dive albums played loud over the car stereo. Turned east on Highway 22, and then north onto North Fork Road, where we rolled all the windows down to catch the smells of driving into the forest. At the end of this road, we parked at the trailhead and stepped out from about 2.5 hours in the car.

When packing for a trip to Opal Creek, don’t forget your swimsuit, for the deep pools cannot just be looked upon – you’ll want to put your body in that space where everything looks crystal clear and undisturbed. When packing for a trip to Opal Creek, try to bring pencils that can sketch the shades of turquoise reflecting up from the water as it collides with the cyan that tumbles down through waterfalls.

The trailhead begins on National Forest Development Road 2209. Stepping onto the relatively flat, wide path I felt immediately dwarfed by the height of trees up to 700 years old. After 2 miles, you’ll pass through the Merten Mill, a sawmill built in 1943 that remains in its skeleton frame and scattered rusted metal. A mile further, you’ve reached Jawbone Flats, a mining town turned summer cabin escape. Walk through this "ghost town” and turn right after the dining hall and generator building. Cross a bridge, and then a clearing.

If you’re looking to turn the Opal expedition into a day trip, head for Opal Pool, which drops off the right side of the trail, clearly marked. The path will lead you to a deep pool, cliffs surrounding, and shouts resounding as people launch off the edge and take the plunge. Walking to this pool and back to your car will be about 6.25 miles of distance.

Alternatively, day hikers take the main trail from Jawbone flats to Cedar Flats. This out and back trail, ending back at the car, measures just over 10 miles round trip.

But we were staying for two nights, and wanted to find a more secluded place to pitch our tents and spend our days. Stay left when the trail forks toward Opal Pool, and, less than a quarter mile further, turn instead onto the narrow Kopetski Trail (#4187) on the right. This trail is densely surrounded by fern, knotted with tree roots and mossy rocks, and hangs high above the Little North Santiam River. Our campsite, unmarked and unnamed, was roughly a mile along this path, a short distance from the trail but secluded in the dense forest.

On our layover day, we backtracked our steps on the Kopetski Trail, and traveled southeast on the main path towards Cedar Flats, where the Opal Creek Trail ends. It quickly passes over a short stretch of water that is bordered by falls both above and below along the steep slope, two of the tiers of the Flume Creek Falls. Our out-and-back path from the campsite was less than 4 miles, and led to the largest grouping of ancient cedars in the surrounding wilderness area. 

Early Monday morning, we returned to the trail and completed the Kopetski Loop in a clockwise direction. The forest thins and the trail leads across a wide and sturdy footbridge which leads back to the gravel National Forest road on which we'd begun. Soon after, Sawmill Falls on the left gave us a last taste of cascading water, and the trailhead was back in range.

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Family Friendly
Cliff Jumping
Swimming Hole


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